In 2011, I served as a political trainer for the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit that works to promote democracy and freedom throughout the world. At the time, Afghanistan had just concluded successful parliamentary elections that brought the first cohort of women to the Afghan Parliament’s House of the People. When I travelled to Kabul for my first meeting with 65 newly-elected women parliamentarians, they voiced the usual concerns you might expect: How do you handle constituent service? How do you craft legislation? Eventually, the conversation turned 180 degrees. “What do you do when your campaign workers are threatened or killed?” someone asked me.
She was not unique among her colleagues. One woman’s campaign manager had been assassinated, others had already sent their families abroad for safety, all had received credible threats to their lives. As a former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, I thought I knew the brutality of politics. But sitting in front of me were women who had put themselves and their families’ lives at risk to exercise their new constitutional right to serve in elected office. Those gains were obviously hard fought—and they did not come overnight. Unfortunately, they risk being lost in a U.S.-brokered peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
After nearly two decades of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, majorities in both countries hope for an end to the conflict. At the Munich Security Conference last month, which I attended, there was a palpable excitement about the prospect of a negotiated peace in Afghanistan. But it was uneasily paired with growing concerns about what such an agreement might mean for the fragile, hard-won advances made by Afghan women and girls over the past 18 years.
In a relatively short span of time, Afghanistan has gone from a country with no schools for women and girls to one where 60 percent of the 3.7 million children in school are female. At the same time, the literacy rate for girls is dragged down by the 40 percent of the country still under de facto control of the Taliban, where girls are either limited to a few years of education or denied the opportunity altogether. If the Taliban were welcomed back into the Afghanistan government, women throughout the entire country could once again be subject to harsh oppression.
In a meeting with members of the U.S. Congressional delegation to the Munich confab, led by Senator Lindsay Graham, the Pakistani Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shaw Makdoom Qureshi, dismissed these concerns, asserting that women’s rights in Afghanistan were firmly established and could not be reversed by the Taliban’s return to the government. History would suggest otherwise.
Citing war-weariness among the American people, the Trump Administration has undertaken direct discussions with the Taliban in the hopes of withdrawing U.S. troops from the conflict. The desire to bring soldiers home is not misguided, but there are several reasons to be skeptical of the peace process as it currently stands: first, the preservation and protection of women’s rights has not been explicitly prioritized by the U.S. diplomatic team; second, the exclusion of Afghan government officials from early U.S.-Taliban negotiations delegitimizes the Afghan government and its founding principles, including protections for human rights and women’s rights; and finally, the absence of women from the negotiating table during the peace process decreases the likelihood that the concerns of women, including access to education, political power, and healthcare, will be guaranteed.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, recently announced an agreement on a “draft framework” to guide future negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Khalilzad tweeted that his agenda had included four points: a guarantee that the Taliban would not harbor al Qaeda or Islamic State militants; a sequencing of U.S. troop withdrawal; a permanent cease fire between the Taliban and Afghan and Coalition forces; and intra-Afghan dialogue regarding a political roadmap to peace. Protections for Afghan women, or even for the Afghan Constitution, are conspicuously not on the framework list.
Those who most enthusiastically advocate pulling troops out of Afghanistan, like Robert D. Kaplan at the Center for a New American Security, generally concede that a precipitous departure of U.S. troops would likely undercut the precarious gains in democratic ideals secured by our presence. By negotiating the sequencing of troop withdrawal without mandating the preservation of women’s rights, the United States is signaling that women’s rights are acceptable collateral damage of a negotiated peace.
Similarly, placing intra-Afghan dialogue last on the framework list has significant implications for the future of Afghan women. Currently, both Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the High Peace Council, a national assembly, have been excluded from both U.S.-led and Russian-hosted talks with the Taliban. By contrast, Afghan opposition leaders, even former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have been present. Failing to insist on engagement with the elected Afghan government delegitimizes Ghani and plays into the Taliban’s characterization of the Afghan government as a puppet of the U.S., rather than the democratically-elected leadership of a sovereign nation. That indirectly undermines the power and legitimacy of the Afghan women elected as members of parliament and local councils who have embraced the political system as a bulwark of their protection.
Since 2001, more than 100,000 women in rural parts of the country have been elected to serve as their communities’ representatives on local councils. And now, a greater percentage of women serve in the Afghan Parliament than American women do in the U.S. Congress.
The absence of Afghan women at the peace talks sends the wrong message. Their presence, instead, would be a signal by the U.S. that women’s rights won’t be a bargaining chip in negotiations.
Afghan women themselves are demanding a voice. Not long ago, a 22-year-old graduate of the American University of Afghanistan and grassroots organizer, Guarsanay Ibnul Ameen, brought 5,000 young people to the Afghani Presidential Palace to advocate for women’s participation in the peace process. The Ghani Administration seems to be listening. It recently said that 30 percent of the government’s 2000-member peace assembly delegates would be women. Ghani’s mandate may help to include women’s voices in the national discussion regarding peace, but women also need to be represented at the tables where decisions are actually made.
The progress made by Afghan women over the last 18 years is significant and real, and it has largely been bought by the extraordinary sacrifices of US soldiers and their families. That progress may be the most meaningful legacy of the American presence in Afghanistan.
The welfare of Afghan women and girls cannot be discounted as the inevitable price of peace—history teaches that peace without justice is short-lived. If U.S. negotiators do not prioritize the rights of Afghan women, including bringing Afghan women leaders to the table during the peace process, they not only risk endangering Afghan women and girls. They risk the durability of peace in the region and, ultimately, America’s safety from Afghan-based terrorism that could make its way to our shores.